I’m a Millennial dad approaching middle age. My young kids are finally at the ages (7 and 5 respectively) where they’ve developed an attention span that allows them to watch a film for longer than 20 minutes. We’ve watched a lot of Cars and Toy Story movies together, but something that has given me a lot of enjoyment is introducing them to the movies that served as the backdrop of my childhood.
My parents did the same with me. Thanks to them I got steeped in the archetype of the cowboy by watching plenty of John Wayne, learned why Steve McQueen is called the King of Cool by watching The Great Escape, and discovered how well spooky suspense can be built in the absence of blood and gore by watching some Hitchcock. The movies they shared were classics and enjoyable to watch, but they also gave me a window into who my parents are. When you’re a kid, your parents kind of seem like un-relatable aliens, but when you watch a movie with them that they enjoyed in their youth, you get in touch with a bit of their personality and human-ness. You also get a taste of the era that they grew up in; even when the film they show is a period piece, a certain “flavor” of the time in which it was made comes through.
It’s been fun to continue this tradition with my own kids — it creates a little bridge between us, a shared cultural reference point. Plus it’s just fun to watch a movie you personally enjoy with your children.
Below is my non-definitive list of movies every Millenial dad should introduce to their kids — the movies that feel like nostalgic “classics” from my childhood. Being at the very oldest end of the Millenial generation, these are films that came out roughly between 1982 and 1995. If you’re a younger Millenial, you might have some different, later picks, but really, come on, this was a golden time for movies and it’s hard to get better than these. That’s what everyone says about the movies of their childhood, sure, but in this case, it’s totally, actually true.
The ultimate kid adventure movie. Treasure maps, secret tunnels, pirates, booty booby traps, an awesome cave water slide. The Goonies has it all. I watched this movie over and over again as a six-year-old and even demanded that my family call me “Mikey,” just like the film’s young protagonist. When I was in kindergarten, I got hit in the eye with a rock during a dirt clod fight in a field by my house. I nearly lost my right eye, but I took solace in the fact that I got to wear an eye patch just like One-Eyed Willy. And of course, I watched The Goonies again and again while recovering.
Watching The Goonies with your kids will hopefully inspire them to go on their own adventures for hidden treasure.
The Karate Kid (I and II)
Oh man. The Karate Kid. This movie had a huge influence on my childhood. I learned the importance of standing up to bullies from Daniel (or was Daniel really the bully?) and why you should always look people in the eye from Mr. Miyagi. The Karate Kid: Part II was pretty good too. The Karate Kid: Part III fell off a cliff quality wise. And let’s not even mention the later movies made with Hilary Swank and Jaden Smith.
The Karate Kid is so wholesome and sincere and full of legitimately good lessons, and yet somehow doesn’t seem cheesy. It’s magic.
A few months ago, I introduced The Karate Kid parts I and II to my kids and they fell in love with the movies. We went through a phase where we watched them every day for a few weeks. Lines from The Karate Kid have become part of our family vernacular. Gus will ask me every now and then “Live or die, man?” before honking my nose, and Scout will bark at me “Look eye! Always look eye!”
I’ve succeeded as a father.
Aside: The new YouTube Red series Cobra Kai is really good. The writers did a great job balancing the earnestness of the early Karate Kid movies with the snark and edginess of 21st century humor. Probably should wait until your kids are teenagers to watch it, though. Includes adult humor and language.
Why should you watch the Back to the Future series with your kids? The story is amazing (time-travel!), the acting is top-notch, and the music score is one of the most iconic in film history. Yes, you should watch the Back to the Future trilogy with your kids for all those reasons — it’s pure joy. But I think the reason these films have become modern, timeless classics is that the heart of the story is a kid coming to grips with the inadequacies of his parents, the difficulties of adulthood, and his own place in the world. By going back to 1955, Marty gets an upfront and personal look at his folks in their youth; he sees they were young like him once and had dreams and foibles just like he does. When he travels to the future in Part II, he sees a possible adult life for himself filled with stunted teenage ambitions. And when he travels to the 19th century in Part III, he sees firsthand how his ancestors’ decisions shaped who he is today.
Every kid should see Back to the Future because it shows in a very entertaining way that who we are is not only shaped by the decisions we make, but also the decisions of our family. It teaches you to have grace for yourself, but also for those who came before you.
Also, let’s not forget the allure of power laces and hover boards. I’m still waiting for that legit hover board.
Flight of the Navigator is a lesser-known time-traveling adventure that subtly teaches the importance of family. 12-year-old David Freeman goes out into the woods to look for his little brother in 1978. Along the way, he takes a fall that knocks him out. When he awakes, it’s 1986, and though David hasn’t aged at all, his family has. What happened? Well, he got picked up by an alien ship flown by a robot eye with Pee-wee Herman’s voice and dropped off in the wrong time. The rest of the story is him trying to get back to his “real” family in 1978.
I watched this movie with Gus a few months ago. I think the story of a kid getting back to his family really hit home with him. After the movie he gave me a big hug and said, “I love you, Dad.”
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that The Sandlot is the best movie about being a boy ever. My friends and I would watch this movie over and over again during the summer (in between our games of Pickle and Pepper), and have a great time laughing at and repeating all our favorite lines (“You’re killing me, Smalls!” “You play ball like a girl!” “FOR-EV-ER!”) and drooling over Wendy Peffercorn. The Sandlot doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a simple movie about close boyhood friends and their shared love of baseball.
I introduced this movie to my kids last year and it’s become a beginning of summer tradition in the McKay household. Both kids have incorporated “You’re killing me, Smalls!” into their verbal lexicon.
The hat, the whip, the legend. There aren’t too many films today that inspire adventure like the Indiana Jones series does. I still remember seeing The Last Crusade in the movie theater on the 4th of July in 1989. And, of course, when I got home I immediately donned my grandpa’s old cowboy hat, fashioned a whip for myself, and started fighting imaginary Nazis. The first three are the best. I tried watching the one where Indy finds the alien skull. Just didn’t do it for me. Can’t wait to watch these with Gus, soon.
Hot take: Heavyweights is Ben Stiller’s most underrated and overlooked movie. His crazed fitness guru Tony Perkins is one of the funniest bad guys in film history. Plenty of fart jokes and awesome montage scenes of kids having fun and taking part in hijinks. I still want to try out the Blob, thanks to this movie.
The Monster Squad is an oft-overlooked kid’s adventure flick. People typically go to The Goonies to scratch that itch. But The Monster Squad will do the trick too. I had a buddy say it’s the edgier, cooler version of The Goonies: “The Monster Squad is to The Goonies as a Greaser is to a Soc. The Monster Squad is The Goonies’ scarier, more rebellious cousin that wears a leather jacket, carries a switch blade, and gets all the girls.”
Dracula, Wolf Man, Mummy, and Gill-man descend upon a small town, and a group of plucky kids take it upon themselves to kick some monster ass. This movie is a cornucopia of quotes: “My name is, Horace!” “Bogus!” and of course, the greatest line in movie history “Wolf Man’s got nards!”
I was a big-time Ghostbusters fan as a kid. The raunchy, adult humor definitely went over my six-year-old head (it wasn’t until I was 17 that I finally caught on to the sexual innuendos), but when you’re a kid, you don’t watch Ghostbusters for the jokes — you watch it for the ghost-fighting scenes. What makes Ghostbusters a good introduction to scary movies for kids is that the humor tamps down the fright factor. A monster-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is scary, but not too scary, because he’s, well, made out of marshmallow. (The shushing ghost in the library is legit scary though.) I just wish they still made Ghostbusters toys. Christmas 1988 was Ghostbuster Christmas for me — got the firehouse, a proton pack, and lots of bottles of ectoplasm.
This past Christmas, Home Alone became a new McKay family holiday tradition. The kids pretty much watched it non-stop all through December and they even started watching it again in March. Why do kids love this movie? First, it’s funny, but the story of a kid facing the world all by himself without grown-ups lights up a child’s imagination. Our kids seem both scared of what parent-less life would be like, and intrigued by such independence. So a perfect encapsulation of how it feels to grow up.
A great, action-adventure movie for kids filled with heady humor for adults. Plus, The Princess Bride is filled with classic one-liners that can be pulled out for almost any occasion (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.”).
My in-laws introduced my kids to E.T. this summer and they loved it. A troubled boy named Elliott musters the courage to help a lost, cute alien return to his planet. Such great storytelling in this movie. It also contains one of the best product placements in film history. Every time I watch it, I want to eat Reese’s Pieces.
It was every ’80s and ’90s kid’s dream to go to Space Camp. While I never managed to get on Double Dare to win a trip there, I was able to vicariously experience Space Camp thanks to the campy 1986 movie of the same name. A bunch of kids go to Space Camp and get the chance to sit in the Space Shuttle for a test run. Fate steps in and they actually get launched into space. The rest of the movie is them trying to get back home. Not an award-winning film — just a good time flick.
Back in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a production company called Feature Films for Families that put out direct-to-VHS movies for kids that were designed to teach moral lessons. My mom bought my brother and I bunch of them. They were super cheesy, but I’ll be damned if we didn’t wear those tapes out. The Buttercream Gang was the particular movie in the collection that got lots of playtime in our household. It’s about a “gang” of boys who do good deeds in a small town. One summer, the leader of the Buttercream Gang, Pete, moves to Chicago where he joins a real juvenile delinquent gang. When Pete returns, he starts another bad dude gang. The Buttercream Gang rallies together to try to save their wayward friend.
It’s a nice story about friendship, love, and grace. The overly-dramatic acting makes it a hoot to watch. Pete’s meltdown in the general store is epic. It’s also got some great lines that I still drop into my conversation today (“Is that a threat? No, it’s a promise.”)
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